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Is Miguel Sano ‘running out of time’ to become a star?

When Miguel Sano first arrived in the big leagues in 2015 I thought he could become the next Miguel Cabrera.

Fast forward only a few years from that sensational debut and it looks clear that he’s not that. Watch him take batting practice before any game, and he’s still got that crazy pop. But at 25 years old, we’re now questioning what once looked like a foregone conclusion: Will Migeul Sano become a Major League star?

Back in 2015, Sano was a 22-year-old who got the call in late summer and took the lineup by storm. Almost instantly, he was the most feared hitter that the Twins employed. He mashed his way to .269/.385/.530 with 18 home runs in 335 plate appearances mostly as a DH, since the Twins already had third baseman Trevor Plouffe plugged in at the position. Sure, Sano struck out in more than 35% of his plate appearances, but you could excuse that because of all the power and the strong walk rate of nearly 16%. Sano was getting on base, he was taking close pitches, and his mighty swing did an awful lot of damage on the pitches he liked.

It was the combination of power and patience — his disciplined approach and what seemed like an elite ability to recognize pitches — that had me thinking Sano was sure to be a superstar.

It’s not too late for him to still become that player. It looks to me like the talent is there. It’s just that time and circumstance have started to work against the now-25-year-old.

At the time of this writing, Sano is hitting .208/.277/.417 with plenty of checked swings and strikeouts, a lower power output than we’ve come to expect, and over the weekend was dropped to 7th in an injury-depleted Twins lineup.

ESPN recently published a column by David Schoenfield that listed 10 players who are “running out of time to become stars.” Sano was third on that list, right next to his teammate, Byron Buxton. The centerfielder is currently on the disabled list with a broken toe, and that’s another column for another day.

Why did Sano make the list?

Durability

The first thing he should say is that Sano has had his fair share of setbacks. Between Buxton and Sano, if the Twins could rewind time and give each player the gift of perfect health, we might be talking about a very different club right now.

Sano missed a year in the minor leagues with Tommy John surgery, a relatively rare outcome for a position player. He missed 24 games this year with a strained hamstring. Last August he fouled a ball off his shin and the stress reaction knocked him out for most of the final 6 weeks, and a rushed attempt to get back in time for the Wild Card game was unsuccessful. Sano also had hamstring issues a couple years ago during the Twins’ ill-advised attempt to make him into an outfielder.

Weight

Sano is listed in the team’s media guide as 272 pounds. It’s hard to eye-ball body weight (and the number on the scale is not nearly as important as body composition), but these days the consensus among outsiders that are around the team regularly is that Sano isn’t in the Best Shape of His Life.

I won’t blame him for fouling a ball off his shin last summer. But I do wonder if Sano would have better success with soft-tissue muscular injuries (like hamstrings) if he took better care of his body. It might help him in the field, too, where I view him as having gone from an above-average defender to just OK at third base. He has the arm to make some great plays, and he can charge and barehand a ball really well for a guy his size. But I don’t see the plus defender right now, and the Twins appear very comfortable with keeping Eduardo Escobar at third base while Sano splits time between DH and first base.

Strikeouts

The one silver lining of missing so much time the past 3 seasons is that it’s kept Sano from setting an MLB strikeout record.

We’ll get to strikeouts in general in a moment. One underlying concernright now is that Sano goes after more pitches now than he used to, and he’s not making up for that looser discipline with added power or contact.

Sano is currently chasing a career-high number of pitches outside the strike zone. I don’t know whether that’s because he’s not seeing pitches as well as he was, or that pitchers are attacking him differently, or perhaps because he’s so eager to put a ball over the fence that he’ll swing more readily at a pitcher’s pitch. Here’s FanGraphs’ year-by-year breakdown of the percentage of pitches outside the strikezone that draws a swing from Sano.

Year Chase Rate
2015 25.2%
2016 23.7%
2017 29.1%
2018 32.2%

Source: FanGraphs.com

I also don’t have check-swing data readily available, but I’d have to imagine that Sano is moving in the wrong direction in that category.

In the ESPN column, Schoenfield wrote that Sano’s strikeout rate has gone from “extreme to scary.” Even as the league strikeout rate climbs, Sano looks worse in that area today than he did as a rookie. The stats back up the eye test.

Year Sano K% MLB K% Difference (pct points)
2015 35.5% 20.4% 15.1%
2016 36.0% 21.1% 14.9%
2017 35.8% 21.6% 14.2%
2018 40.3% 22.4% 17.9%

Source:FanGraphs.com

Strikeouts are viewed in a different light these days. They’re OK as long as long as they come with power. Situational hitting is nice, no doubt, but if you’ve got a guy like Aaron Judge crushing home runs as a matter of routine, teams seem to be willing to live with the total body of production.

Because of his power, Sano can still be successful offensively even with absurd strikeout totals. But it will put a definite ceiling on his contributions, and if he doesn’t stick at third base and give the Twins value and durability with his glove and arm, the burden on his bat is all the greater.

A 40% strikeout rate will make it awfully difficult to be a great hitter, in my book. This is why I no longer see the Miguel Cabrera comparison as fair. Let’s say Sano ever gets 600 plate appearance in a season. A 40% strikeout rate would mean giving away 240 of them for nothing. That would, in theory, come with the tradeoff of added power output, but Sano would have to do a ton of damage with his remaining 360 plate appearances to make that an appetizing trade. (Miguel Cabrera, by the way, owns a career strikeout rate of 17.1% in more than 9,600 plate appearances, which is an enormous difference.)

All of this is a long way of saying that Sano used to look like a sure-bet star in the big leagues. These days there aren’t as many people you’ll find willing to make that bet.

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